When to capitalize “sir” and “madam”

Yup, this guy became Sir Paul McCartney.

Yup, this guy became Sir Paul McCartney.

 

When are sir and madam (and the contraction ma’am) capitalized? The answer depends on how you use them.

When to capitalize
Sir and madam are capitalized:

  • when beginning a letter/email
  • as an honorific coming before a name

Example: Dear Sir or Madam, I am writing to inform you that you are related to a Nigerian prince.
Example: My aunt was lucky enough to see Sir Paul McCartney play in the 1960s.

Note, however, that when referring to a man who has been given the honorific sir (or a woman who has become a dame) without using their full name (when sir or dame stands alone), it is not capitalized.

Example: My aunt was lucky enough to see Sir Paul McCartney play in the 1960s, before he became sir.

When to lowercase
Lowercase sir and madam in cases other than starting a correspondence and as an honorific before a name. This most concerns people who are writing dialogue in creative writing.

Example: “Please sir, may I have some more smores?” the boy asked hungrily.
Example: “It was a pleasure to meet you, madam,” the gentleman said.

To sum up
Capitalize sir and madam (and ma’am and dame) when starting a letter/email and when it comes before a name as an honorific. Lowercase sir and madam in other cases.

Quiz
Choose whether to capitalize or lowercase the words in italics.

1. “Fancy seeing you here, ma’am,” Roger said as he held out his hand.
2. Did you see the new movie starring dame Judi Dench?
3. Dear sir or madam, I am writing in regard to my January 27th letter.
4. “You are so kind, sir,” said the young man.
5. Shelley felt old when people started calling her ma’am.

Answers:

1. lowercase 2. capitalize 3. capitalize 4. lowercase 5. lowercase

Erin Servais is a freelance book editor with hundreds of titles under her proverbial belt. Learn why her clients keep coming back: dotanddashllc.com.

Okay! OK! O.K.! Ok?

You are, no doubt, familiar with OK. These two strung-together letters have made one of the world’s most commonly used words. Today we’re going to learn the origin of this universal term for all right, sure, and fine and which of its various spellings are correct.

Etymology
OK started as a joke. In 1839, it was a trend for newspapers in Boston to use initialisms that represented misspelled phrases. For example, there was K.G., which stood for know go (instead of no go), and N.C., which stood for nuff ced (instead of enough said). This is how OK entered the language. Newspapers of the time used it to stand for oll korrect, a jokey version of all correct, funny because the spelling was the opposite of being all correct.

And then came this mutton-chopped fellow:

When President Martin Van Buren was running for reelection in 1840, his fundraising group in New York was named the O.K. Club. In this instance, OK also referenced his nickname Old Kinderhook (which came from his birthplace in the New York village of Kinderhook). Van Buren lost, but the word gained popularity.

Spellings of OK
OK was originally spelled with periods, looking like this: O.K. Today, it is more common to see it spelled as OK (without the periods) and okay. If you look it up in the dictionary, you will see either OK and okay listed as correct spellings of the word or all three versions: O.K., OK, and okay.

Style guidelines are largely fuzzy on the issue of one preferred spelling. For instance, The Chicago Manual of Style doesn’t even acknowledge the issue. However, The Associated Press Stylebook lists OK as the preferred spelling. The most important point is to pick one spelling and stick with it throughout your writing to maintain consistency.

However, note that spelling the word with lowercase letters (ok) is not, well, OK. I mean okay.

Sources:
American Heritage Dictionary online: http://ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=OK&submit.x=0&submit.y=0

Chicago Manual of Style online: http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/qanda/data/faq/topics/YouCouldLookItUp/faq0014.html

Online Etymology Dictionary: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=ok&searchmode=none

Capitalizing Titles of Works

Some people prefer to capitalize each word of a title. But, if you need to learn the rules of the “up and down” style of titles, here is a guide.

Section 8.157 of The Chicago Manual of Style lays out rules:

  1. Capitalize first and last words
  2. Capitalize nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs
  3. Lowercase articles the, a, and an
  4. Lowercase prepositions (of, in, to, for, with, on, at, over, between, around, etc.)
  5. Lowercase conjunctions and, but, for, or, and nor

Note: These are only the basic rules. However, these are likely the only ones you’ll need.
Preposition list: For a longer list of English prepositions, click here.

Examples
Let’s run through some examples. I’ll explain why I capitalized or lowercased each word.

1. Vampires Suck Blood from a Young Woman.

  • I capitalized Vampires and Woman because they are the first and last words. (rule 1)
  • I capitalized Suck because it’s a verb. (rule 2)
  • I capitalized Young because it’s an adjective. (rule 2)
  • I lowercased a because it’s an article. (rule 3)
  • I lowercased from because it’s a preposition. (rule 4)

2. The Mating Habits of Mutants

  • I capitalized The and Mutants because they are the first and last words. (rule 1)
  • I capitalized Mating it’s an adjective. (rule 2)
  • I capitalized Habits because it’s a noun. (rule 2)
  • I lowercased of because it’s a preposition. (rule 4)

3. The Unicorn Who Forgot His Knife

  • I capitalized The and Knife because they are the first and last words. (rule 1)
  • I capitalized Unicorn because it’s a noun. (rule 2)
  • I capitalized Forgot because it’s a verb. (rule 2)
  • I capitalized Who and His because they are pronouns. (rule 2)

4. Four Snakes and Rats Played Nicely Together

  • I capitalized Four and Together because they are the first and last words. (rule 1)
  • I capitalized Snakes and Rats because they’re nouns. (rule 2)
  • I capitalized Played because it’s a verb. (rule 2)
  • I capitalized Nicely because it’s an adverb. (rule 2)
  • I lowercased and because it’s a conjunction. (rule 5)

Quiz
Test your skills with a quiz. Below you will see titles with every word lowercased. Rewrite each title with the correct words capitalized. The answers are below.

1. young boy caught farting in class
2. crazy cat and the dumb dog
3. swarm of grandmothers brazenly pinch cheeks at noon
4. ten clouds turn pink
5. the curious way the sea monster eats her food in the ocean

Answers: 1. Young Boy Caught Farting in Class 2. Crazy Cat and the Dumb Dog 3. Swarm of Grandmothers Brazenly Pinch Cheeks at Noon 4. Ten Clouds Turn Pink 5. The Curious Way the Sea Monster Eats Her Food in the Ocean

When to italicize foreign words and phrases

Every once in a while, it feels good to add a snooty foreign word or phrase to your writing. I mean, what would the writing world be without a little je ne sais quoi? However, there are rules about how to treat these words and phrases on first reference, and that’s what today’s post is about. (After all, teaching language and style rules is Grammar Party’s modus operandi.)

Section 7.49 of the sixteenth edition of The Chicago Manual of Style states, “Italics are used for isolated words and phrases in a foreign language if they are likely to be unfamiliar to readers. If a foreign word becomes familiar through repeated use throughout a work, it need be italicized only on its first occurrence. If it appears only rarely, however, italics may be retained.”

The question is: How do you know if a foreign word or phrase will be unfamiliar to readers? Chicago has an answer for that, too. According to section 7.52, the test to find out if a word or phrase is likely to be unfamiliar to readers is to see if it is listed in Merriam-Webster.

If the foreign word or phrase is listed in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, don’t italicize it. If it’s not listed, italicize it.

Here’s a starter list of foreign words and phrases that don’t need italics (because they are listed in Merriam-Webster):

addendum entente
ad hoc ex officio
ad infinitum exposé
ad interim fait accompli
à la carte fete
à la mode habeas corpus
ante meridiem habitué
à pied hors d’oeuvre
a priori machismo
apropos maître d’hôtel
artiste mandamus
attaché mélange
avant-garde ménage
beau ideal nom de plume
belles lettres non sequitur
billet-doux papier-mâché
blasé per annum
bloc per capita
bona fide per contra
bourgeois per diem
cabaret précis
café prima facie
camouflage procès-verbal
canapé pro forma
carte blanche pro rata
chargé d’affaires protégé
cliché quasi
communiqué quondam
confrere realpolitik
coup recherché
coup d’état reveille
cul-de-sac résumé
de facto soiree
décolletage status quo
détente subpoena
dilettante têt-à-tête
distrait tour de force
doppelganger vice versa
dramatis personae visa
éclat vis-à-vis
en masse viva voce
en route

I hope you enjoyed our quasi têt-à-têt. Remember, if you’d like more Grammar Party musings throughout your day, you can follow me on twitter at @GrammarParty.

Titles of works: italics or quotation marks

 

Today we’re going to talk about titles of works (movies, books, articles, and more) and whether they should be in italics or quotation marks. You’ll learn the rules in The Chicago Manual of Style, which is the style guide people who edit books use. The Associated Press Stylebook, which is the style guide newspapers use, has a different set of rules. If you want to learn those rules, you can find a quick guide here.

Books, newspapers, and magazines
Titles of books, newspapers, and magazines should be italicized.

Examples:
I heard that the book A History of Princess Crowns is fascinating.
The astronaut had a subscription to the newspaper Mars Daily.
Marsha likes the magazine Cats Monthly because it has cute photos.

Articles and chapters
Titles of articles in newspapers or magazines and chapter titles in books should be in quotation marks.

Examples:
Did you read the article “Fun with Flesh-eating Bacteria” in the magazine?
My favorite chapter in the book was “Germs are gross.”

Movies, television shows, radio programs, and plays
Titles of movies, television shows, radio programs, and plays should be italicized.

Examples:
The gardener’s favorite movie is the documentary Plants Are Awesome.
The scientist watches the television show World’s Weirdest Germs every Tuesday night.
Sally’s mom loved listening to the radio show Stuff Old People Like.
The little girl’s favorite play was Cute, Fuzzy Animals in the Forest.

Poems and songs
Titles of poems and songs should be in quotation marks.

Example:
In high school, Sally wrote a poem called “Johnny Is Cute.”
She also wrote a song called “I Think I’m in Love with Johnny.”

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Quiz
Test your skills with this quiz. Look at the titles in bold and choose whether they should be italicized or in quotation marks. The answers are at the bottom.

1. The most popular article in today’s City Tribune is Boy Rescues Cat from Tree.
2. Francis worked all week on his song That Jerk Stole my Heart.
3. Lacy was sad because she missed Sassy Girls’ Island on television last night.
4. Did you get to the chapter Workouts for the Lazy Man in the book The Lazy Man’s Guide to Life?
5. I tried not to fall asleep during the play The Calm and the Quiet because it was really boring.
6. Steve had to read the poem The Cat Eats Rats for school.
7. After Frank heard the movie review for Car Crashes and Blood on the radio show Watch these Movies, he couldn’t wait to see it.

1. italics, quotation marks 2. quotation marks 3. italics 4. quotation marks, italics 5. italics 6. quotation marks 7. italics, italics

Erin Servais is the founder of Dot and Dash, LLC, an author-services company focusing on women writers and offering a range of editing, coaching, and social media packages.

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